Less than two blocks from my new Tacoma residence, I happened upon a memorial plaque affixed to the facing of a single-family home’s cement staircase leading up from the sidewalk.
The man born in that home in 1903 sang the best-selling Christmas song of all time: “White Christmas.” More than 50 million copies were sold, says The Guinness Book of Records.
And what I have learned since — about that singer, Bing Crosby, and the man who wrote the song, Irving Berlin — has made me as melancholy as the feeling you’ll get the next time you hear Crosby sing it.
Why? Partly because Tacoma has neglected to leverage the Crosby connection and his historic global popularity into an attraction that could help drive our tourism sector. And, once, when a local man tried to create a Crosby attraction in a Commerce Street storefront, Tacoma turned its back on him.
But the sadness starts with this. The plaque says Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby was born at 1112 N. J St. on May 2, 1904. No, he wasn’t.
Not until Crosby died in 1977 while golfing in Spain did anyone double-check the birth records at St. Patrick Parish just across the street from his birth home. He actually was born May 3, 1903. Media reports claim Crosby’s brothers, who helped manage his career, changed his birth date in early publicity materials so he’d seem younger.
Can someone please replace that plaque?
Crosby didn’t stay long in Tacoma, despite strong family ties to the South Sound. In Tumwater, on the west bank of the Deschutes River, you’ll find Crosby House, now a museum listed on multiple historic registers, originally built by Bing’s grandfather, Nathanial Crosby III, a famous area pioneer and sea captain.
Yet little Bing’s family moved from Tacoma to Spokane in 1906, which would later prove a bitter blow to Tacoma and a boon for Spokane. When magic happens with music on the magnitude of “White Christmas” — you must consider the singer, the songwriter, and the societal forces of the era.
Songwriter Berlin and his wife lost a baby boy on Christmas Eve 1928 — years before he penned “White Christmas.” Some historians surmise the sorrowful link between the death and the holiday contributed to the song’s melancholy melody.
Both Crosby and Berlin later would say their collaboration on the song’s first radio airing at Christmas 1941— days after the WWII bombing of U.S. forces in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii — struck a chord among Americans who longed for the peace of Christmas past.
Enter Tacoman Ken Twiss, founder and proprietor of the Bing Crosby Historical Society Museum, which operated for a short time in the smallish basement storefront of Tacoma’s Pantages Theater. For more than four decades, Twiss collected Crosby memorabilia and cajoled and pleaded with Tacoma’s civic and business elite to invest in a tourist attraction built around Crosby.
“Tacoma should not be caught completely ignoring a native son,” Twiss wrote to a newspaper columnist in 1947. But Twiss could never get those leaders to back his venture in any sustainable way. It folded. Can someone with a passion for Tacoma, Hollywood’s heyday, and Crosby revive the concept? I hope so.
Phil Cowan, general manager of The Grand Cinema, says the “White Christmas” movie sing-alongs the theater ran several times in a recent holiday season were “wildly popular.”
“I am surprised that there isn’t something more about (Crosby) being born here. I don’t know if it is a museum, or some exhibit the Historical Society or History Museum should do, but something,” Cowan said.
Or has Tacoma’s chance to embrace Crosby passed?
“I suppose we did miss a celebrity association by not embracing Bing’s origins here in Tacoma,” said Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan. “But oddly, Tacoma has always been a bit reluctant to wrap itself in the hometown status of famous people. … It has always seemed to me that when Spokane grabbed the ‘Hometown of Bing Crosby’ label, Tacoma conceded that its birth claim was just too short-lived and tenuous to argue over.”
And what became of Twiss? Shortly after Christmas 1993 and after Spokane had built a museum honoring Crosby, Twiss wrote to C.R. Roberts, columnist for The News Tribune, lamenting, “I hope this time you will tell the city what it has lost.”
May your days be merry and bright. And may all your Christmases be white.